When I started researching this topic, I found an interesting web site (here), Legal Reform Now (LRN). As the name suggest, this web site is devoted to legal reform, and LRN is definitely concerned about the dominance of lawyers in American government. LRN referenced an article by a political science professor (University of Wisconsin) that was helpful to this post (here). One observation the UW article confirms is that the legal profession is the dominant profession of the people we elect to public office. For example, about half our representatives are lawyers and two thirds of our Senators.
Effectively, as Alexis de Tocqueville once observed, members of the legal profession form America’s aristocracy. Tocqueville, a Frenchman, is justly famous for Democracy in America which appeared in two volumes in 1835 and 1840. In order to understand a strange new nation, Tocqueville toured America. Then he wrote a book and shared his observations. Here is one of his more notable observations.
In America there are no nobles or men of letters, and the people is apt to mistrust the wealthy; lawyers consequently form the highest political class, and the most cultivated circle of society. They have therefore nothing to gain by innovation, which adds a conservative interest to their natural taste for public order. If I were asked where I place the American aristocracy, I should reply without hesitation that it is not composed of the rich, who are united together by no common tie, but that it occupies the judicial bench and the bar.
No one knows exactly why lawyers rule America. Nevertheless, Tocqueville provides an explanation that probably comes close to the mark. Tocqueville, a lawyer himself, naturally had a strong interest in the role of lawyers in America. So a significant portion of his book is devoted to American Law and the role of the legal class. Here is his assessment of why lawyers more than any other profession form the American aristocracy.
The special information which lawyers derive from their studies ensures them a separate station in society, and they constitute a sort of privileged body in the scale of intelligence. This notion of their superiority perpetually recurs to them in the practice of their profession: they are the masters of a science which is necessary, but which is not very generally known; they serve as arbiters between the citizens; and the habit of directing the blind passions of parties in litigation to their purpose inspires them with a certain contempt for the judgment of the multitude. To this it may be added that they naturally constitute a body, not by any previous understanding, or by an agreement which directs them to a common end; but the analogy of their studies and the uniformity of their proceedings connect their minds together, as much as a common interest could combine their endeavors.
A portion of the tastes and of the habits of the aristocracy may consequently be discovered in the characters of men in the profession of the law. They participate in the same instinctive love of order and of formalities; and they entertain the same repugnance to the actions of the multitude, and the same secret contempt of the government of the people. I do not mean to say that the natural propensities of lawyers are sufficiently strong to sway them irresistibly; for they, like most other men, are governed by their private interests and the advantages of the moment.
Effectively, lawyers form our nation’s most powerful organized political constituency (For a definition, see here.) in America. Lawyers make our laws and lawyers interpret our laws. No other profession comes close to having the same number of people in political office. When judges are appointed, what other profession’s professional organization (The American Bar Association) is consulted to rate the fitness of potential judicial appointees?
Our nation has been in existence for over 200 years, and lawyers have been this nation’s aristocracy since its formation. Our system works, but do we really want to have a single profession in charge of our nation? Specifically, do we want to have the legal profession in charge? Next time you vote, that is something to think about.
Meanwhile I expect to write several more posts on this subject.